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Safeguarding democracy in 2024 and beyond

Ghana is among 54 countries globally that will be holding high-profile general elections in 2024. This means that as well as the other countries Ghana will be in the international limelight; and the country will quite expectedly undergo a smooth transition from one government to the next. In fact, a smooth transition has become the hallmark of Ghana’s democracy since 1992 when the Fourth Republic commenced.

There are a number of events that are unique to the impending 2024 elections, especially the presidential elections. For the first time in the Fourth Republic’s history, a defeated former president is contesting for re-election to serve a final term. Also, for the first a sitting vice-president convincingly won the presidential nomination of a ruling party.

Moreover, for the first time, both presidential candidates of the two dominant political parties are from the northern part of Ghana. This scenario affirms the notion that Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of introducing free education for northern Ghana has yielded the desired outcome, as both Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia and ex-president John Mahama are products of Nkrumah’s free education policy.

Furthermore, the 2024 election signals the first time a Muslim from the north has been elected as presidential candidate of a political party in Ghana.  That said, religion is inconsequential and not a requirement for anyone aspiring to become president of Ghana – as stipulated in the 1992 Constitution.

Doublespeak

All said the 2024 presidential elections will go down to the wire – with wild and unrealistic promises, words of sophistry and double-speak. Double-speak is an aphorism used by George Orwell in his seminal book ‘1984’ to depict politicians’ lack of sincerity, who promise what they know to be utopian and unachievable. Specifically, the leading contenders – Dr. Mamahudu Bawumia of the ruling New Patriotic Party and John Mahama of the opposition National Democratic Congress – are expected to offer the electorate several basketsful of political promises, some of which could amount to watering down or pouring cold water on the opposing candidate’s policies.

Ghanaians will therefore have an opportunity to assess which of the two candidates can be trusted to deliver their promises; which of the two is competent; and which of the two has progressive ideas that can shape the future of Ghana. In his inaugural speech last week as the NPP’s presidential candidate, Dr. Bawumia outlined his vision for the country – centred on youth empowerment, strengthening education, boosting job creation and providing financial stimulus for the private sector to take commanding heights in economic development.

In the coming weeks, I will make comparative analyses of the two leading contenders’ social and economic policies. This article, however, focuses on the 54 global elections and their implications for worldwide peace and stability.

African elections

Of the 54 countries, 16 are holding presidential elections in Africa. These countries include; Algeria, Botswana, Chad, Comoros, Ghana, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Somaliland, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia and Togo. This impressive number of African countries gives an indication that democratic governance is gaining ground, despite recent setbacks in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Currently, the military rulers of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger do not have plans to return their countries to democratic governance. Of course, as President Ibrahima Traore of Burkina Faso pointed out, his country cannot hold elections in the face of daunting social and economic challenges.

While the United States’ presidential election will be the global community’s focus, equal attention will be paid to Ghana – which provides a beacon for democratic consolidation in West Africa, a region beset by recent coups d’état which have reversed democratic governance. Since 1992, Ghana has had smooth transitions, as previous presidents respected their constitutional term limits. Therefore, incumbent President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo is ineligible to contest the polls.

Democratic oasis 

Senegal’s reputation as a bastion of democracy in an unstable region is on the line after protesters clashed with riot police outside parliament on 5th February 2024. The protests erupted after President Macky Sall announced the indefinite postponement of elections that had been scheduled for February 25, 2024. The proposal to postpone the polls needed support from three-fifths (i.e. 99) of the 165 deputies to pass. The ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition – of which President Sall’s Alliance for the Republic party is part – has a slight majority in parliament. Reports indicated that several opposition Members of Parliament were forced out of the house before the vote that legitimised postponement. A six-month postponement was originally proposed, but a last-minute amendment extended it to 10 months.

Political analysts called the delay a “constitutional coup”, and urged people to come to the streets in protest. Mr. Sall, who became a major beneficiary of democratic consolidation in Senegal, has been nursing plans to stage a constitutional coup by removing the term limits to give himself a chance for another term. Until recently, Senegal had been seen by the international community as a democratic oasis in West Africa; a country that has avoided military coups even as juntas seized power in many of its neighbours.

Despite signs on the wall, President Sall has reiterated that he is not planning to run for office again. But his critics accuse him of either trying to cling onto power or unfairly influencing whoever succeeds him. Previously, ex-president Abdulai Wade’s attempt to amend the constitution to give himself a third term was rejected by the opposition led by Mr. Sall.

In my opinion President Sall is creating conditions for political instability, which could lure the military to intervene. Though undesirable, no one can blame the military if they intervene under such a brazen display of power abuse by a man previously described as a friend of democracy. As was expected, ECOWAS leaders have urged Senegal’s political class to take urgent steps to restore the electoral calendar in line with the constitution.

Elections not a guarantee

There are also increasing perceptions that elections are no guarantee of genuine democracy. But it’s also true that democracy does not exist without elections, which is why 2024 carries such significance. As indicated earlier, in 2024 more than half the world’s population will go to polls. Specifically, 4.2 billion global citizens will be exercising their franchise to choose leaders to represent their aspirations, though many voters are increasingly losing hope of ‘democracy’ ever meeting their aspirations.

“The year 2024 may be the make-or-break year for democracy in the world,” says Staffan Lindberg, director of the Varieties of Democracy, a Swedish think-tank that analyses the ‘complexity of the concept of democracy’. According to Lindberg, the worry is that the electorate tends to empower leaders or parties with anti-democratic leanings; perhaps due to lack of transparent information that enables voters to make informed choices.

Thus, around the world – including some of the biggest and most influential countries, experts have observed that the space for political competition and civil society is shrinking. At the same time, elected but illiberal leaders are cracking down on opponents and critics – eroding democratic institutions like the judiciary and the media that serve as a check on their power; and, finally, consolidating that power through changes in the constitution.

Assumptions

On paper, democracy is good and has been touted as the best form of governance for many people across the world. The assumption is that if every adult of sound mind casts his or her vote, then obviously a good leader will emerge. Practically, however, it is emerging that the average voter does not make good use of their vote – thus making democracy ineffective in many contexts.

Democratisation can be equated to passengers on board a plane who need to vote on electing a pilot between two candidates. The first candidate promises to safely fly the passengers to their destination, while the second candidate promises each passenger a seat in the first-class compartment when given the opportunity. The fact is that there are limited seats in first-class.  The reality is that in today’s democracy the average voter votes based on emotions, unrealistic promises and inadequate information to elect a credible candidate.

Thus, in many contexts – including Ghana, the electorate have elected wrong people into positions of responsibility. With time, the electorate’s aspirations for a better future crash – just like a bad pilot crashes a plane. Comparatively, flying a plane – like democracy – requires experience and sound leadership to do so properly. It requires careful planning and implementation of a progressive vision.

If it takes ten years for a pilot to learn how to fly a plane, it equally needs experience and mental fortitude to lead a country. In practice, democracy elects leaders every four years: but the multi-faceted problems of a country require more than ten years to implement.

As I indicated earlier, democracy is good, but is it the best solution for every country? For instance, though China is a totalitarian system, the Communist Party has succeeded in lifting more than 300 million people out of poverty; while India, the world’s biggest democracy, has more than 300 million people wallowing in poverty. One may not like China’s governance system, but it is working for its population – a chunk of which are achieving millionaire status each year.

A study conducted by International IDEA in 2017, on democratic governance across the world, found that the number of countries transitioning to authoritarianism are surpassing those moving toward democracy. Of the 104 democracies included in the global study, 52 were declining in the democratisation process – up from 12 a decade ago.

Challenges

Several challenges are believed to cause democratic erosion across the world. Among the most talked-about is the rise of heightened political polarisation, fuelled in part by the rise in populist-style ‘us versus them’ politics. Other notable causes include increasing distrust for the legitimacy of elections and widespread disillusionment with mainstream political parties.

But another, perhaps more fundamental, cause is rising levels of inequality. Democracy is ultimately a system predicated on a notion of equality between citizens; but in many countries, including the so-called advanced countries, inequality between the rich and the poor is noticeably increasing each year.

Moving forward, apart from reducing inequality, one of the most important strategies that countries can adopt to stave off democratic backsliding is instituting checks on executive power. This could be by guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary, promoting freedom of expression, upholding media independence and empowering civil society to provide alternative policy options.

Above all, it is in the interest of stakeholders to ensure the credibility and transparency of elections – to serve as a check on political power and to promote political and economic stability. In sum, while the state of global democracy is bleak, one of the few bright spots is the prevalence of civic action around the world. These civil actions include demonstrations to raise awareness on global warming and climate change, as well as demonstrations to demand accountability from duty-bearers.

On that score, the impending demonstrations against Kurt Okraku and the Ghana Football Association for destroying Ghana’s football is a civic action worth supporting. Arise for Ghana’s football!

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